Well, 2021 has well and truly started now. As I write this, we are reeling from having witnessed extraordinary scenes in Washington D.C., whilst we ourselves have again been plunged into Covid lockdown. The daily figures and reports coming from our hospitals and from those we know and trust in the medical services are bleak. Our school buildings are again closed to all but those children who really need to be there, and our families are again struggling with the juggle of everyday life and home-schooling, whilst our teachers are again attempting to simultaneously provide high standard remote education and nurturing in-person tuition, while they’re worrying about their own families. Our church buildings are allowed to open for public worship, but are under no obligation to do so, as the safety of the people of God is of paramount concern. Here in the Elham Valley Group, much as we would dearly love to be gathering together for worship in one of our beautiful sacred spaces, we’ve taken the decision that to do so would be to put lives at risk.
But all is not lost. We can find alternative ways of coming together – for worship, for education, for community – even whilst we are mourning the events we used to be able to attend. We can check on our neighbours and friends, especially those who live alone or who are otherwise isolated. We have seen such evidence of communities coming together over these past 10 months, a real expression of what it truly means to be part of the family of God. And, as vaccinations are rolled out, there’s a real sense of there being light at the end of the tunnel, of there being hope.
Hope. It’s an idea so often expressed. Sadly, we tend to use it now in situations where we actually don’t think there is any hope – it tends to have a negative connotation. Think about it. “I hope there’s a space at the supermarket when I arrive.” The unspoken expectation is that there won’t be a space.
When, in Jeremiah 29:11, God declares “For I know the plans I have for you – plans not to harm you, but to prosper you, plans to give you a hope and a future,” he’s not expressing an abstract idea, to be longed for in vain, with little expectation of it becoming real. He was speaking to the Jewish people who were experiencing suffering and hardship under the domination of their Babylonian enemies. They were desperate to be released immediately from the occupation and despair, and would believe anything that spoke in to that desire. God’s response isn’t to release them immediately from that suffering; rather it is to promise that good will come out of the trauma, that the dark times won’t last forever.
In many ways, our own times echo the desperate experiences of Israel during Jeremiah’s prophesying. We too long for an end to this suffering, the eradication of pandemic, a return to ‘normal’; we long for the day we can get back to the way things used to be. We long to be able to lay our loved ones to rest in the way we want to, to celebrate love and birth with parties attended by family and friends. We long again to holiday in far-off places, and meet up in the local coffee shop for a natter. Through the words of Jeremiah (and so many other examples of course!) God assures us that he hears our cries and he listens to our pleas, and he promises that the future he has planned for us is still there.
So, as we settle in to 2021 and the challenges it has for us, perhaps we can, as the Jews facing exile in Babylon were encouraged, find a way to be thankful for all we do have, even if it’s not what we wanted. Perhaps we can find a way of exploiting the opportunities the hardships have for us, even whilst we’re grieving what could have otherwise been.
Sometime this week, set a few moments aside to think through what you’ve been able to do because of the restrictions we have faced. It can seem an impossible task, in the midst of such encompassing darkness, yet holding fast to God’s promise of hope is what we are called to. For me, I’ve been pondering the quote below, from a film I love. I wonder which of my own flawed and imperfect prayers God has answered over the past year, maybe not in the way I had envisaged, but answered nonetheless. It’s not for me to question the reason why things happen the way they do, but it is my calling to respond to each situation I face in the most loving, life-giving, hope-filled way. And, even in the present darkness and isolation, I hold fast to the promise Jeremiah voiced for us, that God knows the plans he has for us, plans not to harm, but to prosper, to give us a hope and a future. May God’s hope and love and peace bless us abundantly this year.